Imperial Restoration? Barack Obama and American Foreign Policy



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Imperial Restoration? Samuel P. Huntington Revisited

With his first term as president in the book, the prospects for a full restoration of American power, influence and respect are still in question, but improved to be sure. The economic situation remains significant on both the national and international levels with an annual deficit that is larger than ever, as is the national debt. On the one hand, the war in Iraq has ended. And the war in Afghanistan is all but over. But despite efforts to stimulate the domestic market and stabilize world trade Obama still faces an economic situation that will clearly continue through his second presidential term, and likely a good deal of time after that. Here alone it has been tempting to revisit Kennedy’s notion of imperial overstretch and other declinist paradigms, all of which seem far more plausible in light of recent events in North Africa and the Middle East, especially with American involvement in Libya. But this may also be a time to reconsider Kennedy’s chief critic, the late Samuel P. Huntington.

For years PBS ran a promo for its laudable series The American Experience showing images from different decades in American development backed by the wondrous music of John Barry from the film Dances With Wolves. The narration promoted the notion that the United States was that unique country that had the capacity to continually reinvent itself, a point that has proven to be true, more or less.

Certainly this was the general point that Huntington promoted in his refutation of Kennedy regarding the United States in his notable piece “The U.S.-Decline or Renewal?” in 1988. Despite the market crash of October 1987, and the enormous sense of pessimism that followed, Huntington posed the simple question: “Is the united States fundamentally a nation in decline? Or is it in the midst of renewal?”91 At the time Huntington suggested that far from being a great power in decline, the United States was in the process of what he considered a fairly regular process of “renewal.”92 Citing the necessary economic and financial figures at the time, he conceded that the United States had hit a major block in the road, actually coming close to supporting Kennedy’s overstretch thesis, something that was likely to reoccur, but also held that unlike other great powers described by Kennedy, the United States was fundamentally different, and therefore not as prone to the feared outcome of decline and fall,

Declinist literature sets forth images of a nation winding down

economically, living beyond its means, losing its competitive edge to more

dynamic peoples, sagging under the burdens of empire, and suffering from a

variety of intensifying social, economic and political ills.93

Huntington offered something of his own great power model countering Kennedy’s assessment of the United States and generally a host of negative opinions quite secure in contemporary financial/economic fact. The two fundamental elements of this model emphasized the ability to renew national power and the diversity or dynamism of the sources of a state’s power,

The ultimate test of a great power is its ability to renew its power.

The competition, mobility and immigration characteristic of American

society enable the United States to meet this test to a far greater extent

than any other great power, past or present. They are the central sources

of American strength.94


Unlike any other power of the time, Huntington believed, “…American strength is peculiarly multidimensional,” that is not singularly based on either economic power, political power, or military power, and possesses the ability to adapt, to shift emphasis according to changing national and international condition.95 Huntington also held that the continuation of American superpower status would accrue according to the simple fact that there was unlikely to be an emergence of an “alternative hegemonic power” in the twenty first century. In this Huntington was almost certainly correct.96 His ultimate conclusion was simple enough, “…the United States is less likely to decline than any other country. It is distinguished by the openness of its economy, society and politics. Its engines of renewal are competition, mobility and immigration.”97 It is interesting to consider these “engines of renewal” form 2001 to 2012.

Huntington may actually prove to be right in his assessment of the United States, but any power, especially one that could be described as overextended, is vulnerable to the kind of scenario that might resemble the so-called perfect storm, that unexpected coincidence of events where the sum is greater than the parts. Still, the United States does indeed have that innate capacity to reinvent itself every now and again, often amounting to a true renewal of national power. This is evident to a great extent in the events of the past five months. The election of 2008 on many levels marked a seismic change in the American political landscape bringing new economic approaches, dramatic alterations of domestic policies, and significant shifts in foreign policy. All told it could amount to changes that verge on the revolutionary. But only time will tell if the hope and skill of a new administration is equal to the myriad challenges facing the United States and the world at this time, and if Huntington’s older premise of American renewal will again restore American power,

The United States is not immortal and American preeminence is not inevitable.

Yet, some states endure for extraordinary lengths of time, and little reason

exists to assume that recent prophecies of American decline are more accurate

than earlier ones. Every reason exists, however, to encourage belief in such

prophesies in order to disprove them. Happily, the self-renewing genius

of American politics does exactly that.98


Huntington’s earlier reference to the “self-renewing genius of American politics” seems to be reflected in some more recent voices if not in a few recent events.

While Fareed Zakaria has offered a broad spectrum of problems facing the United States as a superpower he has nevertheless concluded, not unlike Huntington, that it remains a power apart from others, “…such problems must be considered in the context of an overall economy that remains powerful and dynamic.”99 He also notes added elements of American power: higher education, a vibrant demography, flexibility, resourcefulness, and resilience.100 The primary problem identified by Zakaria is what he calls dysfunctional politics which has raised its ugly head again even after the 2012 election. He described the United States as “A can-do country…saddled with a do-nothing process, designed for partisan battle rather than problem solving.”101 Zakaria notes that the so-called unipolar moment may fade and clearly many dimensions of power are shifting away from the United States, but it is not about to happen suddenly, and it may be that ultimately the shift of many of these elements to the rest of the world may still favor the United States,

The world is changing, but it is going the United States’ way. The rest

that are rising are embracing markets, democratic government (of some

form or another), and greater openness and transparency. It might be a

world in which the United States takes up less space, but it is one in

which American ideas and ideals are overwhelmingly dominant.102
This sentiment is even echoed by the political right. Recently, T. Boone Pickens said “This is the greatest nation in the world. When we get off course, we have the ability to change and do it quickly.”103

Niall Ferguson finally suggests that we may be approaching a world without a superpower of any kind, neither a unipolar nor multipolar world, “The future, in short, might prove for a time to be apolar, a world without even one dominant imperial power, the ninth century, perhaps, but without the Abbasid caliphate.”104 But this scenario would still leave the United States in the mix.

Even Paul Kennedy concedes that in some areas the American moment may not be quite over,

It is reasonable to argue that the United States’ military power, being

so massive, will face few direct challenges in the years ahead, even if it will

always find it tricky to handle asymmetric threats from terrorists and other

nonstate actors.105
Of course Kennedy remains cautious about the United States’ economic power where he suggests that America has “…reentered a multipolar world after an unusual half century of its own preeminence,” and the United States’ soft power which he emphasizes was “frittered away” with the “flawed foreign policies of the past seven years.”106 Amazingly, even Kennedy was not quite ready to condemn the United States to historical heap of fallen great powers despite the calamities of 2007-2009, which leaves us to speculate about the possibility of American renewal. Economic renewal has been slow in coming, and this will continue to be a challenge to Obama. But the situation in Libya produced something of an unforeseen development; much of the world community still sees the United States as a superpower, and has great expectations of that power in dangerous times. Renewed, or not, the world community expected the United States and its president to act when a humanitarian disaster seemed imminent in Libya, and the United States under the leadership of President Obama responded. Indeed the foreign policy record in its first term indicates anything but imperial decline; whether it will amount to an imperial restoration remains to be seen.

Second Term of Office: New Administration, New Priorities?
With the dawn of 2013 two sets of questions faced the re-elected Obama Administration: what would this administration look like and what would be its priorities for the next four years? A host of new faces emerged to give the appearance of an almost new administration. And given questions given to Obama’s nominees from the Senate, new priorities might also be in the offing.

Recent issues: continuing shadow of 9/11; fallout from Benghazi; the drones, Syria, and Iran.

What should the new issues be: rebuilding bridges with America’s allies, the Arab Israeli Conflict, Iran, avoiding the pitfall that could be Syria, chasing al-Qa’ida into Yemen, Pakistan, and Africa? What among these issues should be deemed as high priorities?

Gone are Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, David Petraeus, the primary faces of Obama’s foreign policy in the first term will soon take on the faces of new administrators of foreign policy for the president’s second term. John Kerry has already taken the helm as Secretary of State, John O. Brennan will head the CIA, Chuck Hagel will lead the Department of Defense (DOD), Tom Donilon remains as National Security Advisor (NSA), and Susan Rice will stay on as Ambassador to the United Nations.107 Amazingly, they are not likely to have two wars to deal with, nor will al-Qa’ida bear a mantle of near invincibility. But new problems have risen and will rise anew. And lingering issues such as China, North Korea, Iran, the Arab-Israeli Conflict, continuing efforts dealing with terrorism i.e. al-Qa’ida, economic stability on the global level, nuclear proliferation, and Gitmo will persist.




Conclusion: No Good Deed…

As the 2012 Presidential Election entered its last sixty days, the homestretch, President Barack Obama was thrown an unexpected curve in foreign affairs with the attacks on American embassies in North Africa and the Islamic world generally. Obama held steadfast and was presidential, as one would expect. He exhibited the kind of cool and balanced approach that had much to do with why he had garnered the Noble Peace Prize in early 2009, and also displayed a savvy born of accumulated knowledge and experience gained in almost four years as President of the United States. Several things were clear as the election neared: accusations that Obama’s foreign policy amounted to little more than an apology tour were not supported with the facts, nor were taunts that he had acted weakly in regards to taking decisive moves regarding national security. In accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway (December 2009) Obama had announced a commitment to multilateralism, and would attempt new starts in relations around the world, but he also made clear he would not hesitate to act audaciously in order to protect the United States, its allies and other states, and to carry out what he would determine to be American responsibilities abroad. He would bend history towards those ends as necessary.108

In the final analysis it is not clear what will be considered as the most important aspects of Obama’s foreign policy in his first term, and it is far from clear that anything like an Obama Doctrine emerged in his first term of office unless it be something to the effect of a restoration of American prestige and respectability. Nor is it likely that the Benghazi affair or controversies about the use of drones will be defining events. Conclusive resolutions of relations with the PRC, North Korea, and Iran remained elusive, while the war on terror, peace in the Arab-Israeli Conflict, outcomes from the Arab Spring and an end to the suffering in Syria must await continued attention in a second term.

Barack Obama’s efforts at avoiding economic disaster, nuclear arms reduction beginning with New START, ending the war in Iraq and setting the stage for the end of the longest war in American history in Afghanistan, restoration of a policy of multilateralism, the Libyan intervention and fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi, a dramatic pivot towards Asia, and his relentless actions against al-Qa’ida and the Taliban that included the death of Usama ibn Laden, will prove more lasting and significant effectively setting aside references to the paradigm of imperial decline and perhaps beginning a process of imperial restoration without overtly giving in to the extremes of imperial temptation.



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